Eduardo Vedes

October 25, 2023

It’s almost 2024, and the world keeps turning, while the tech industry invests more time and money on a daily basis to figure out how to build high-performance teams.

In 2017, one of my friends, mentor, and former employer, Miguel Coquet, gave a talk in Faro – Portugal, about the “importance of being earnest”.

This talk was so successful that he repeated it in 2022.

When the Organizational Guild at Flexiana started discussing how to further improve its teams or how to build truly high-performance teams, I immediately recalled these talks.

One of the aspects that Miguel emphasized was precisely this one. What is the “secret ingredient” to building high-performance teams?

A study at Google identified 5 key indicators of High Performance:

  • psychological safety
  • dependability
  • structure and clarity
  • meaning
  • impact of work

One of them is a cornerstone, serving as an enabler of high performance.

Want to take a guess? Keep reading 👇

The Project Aristotle

In 2012, Google initiated an internal project, code-named Project Aristotle, aimed at studying hundreds of Google’s teams to determine why some encountered difficulties while others excelled. The tech giant invested substantial sums in meticulously measuring every aspect of its employees’ lives.

The Project Aristotle investigators commenced their efforts by reviewing five decades’ worth of academic studies that examined how teams functioned. Were the most successful teams comprised of individuals with similar interests, or did the motivation for the same types of rewards matter more?

They had a wealth of data from across the company, encompassing approximately 180 teams. However, they found no data indicating that a specific mix of personality types, skills, or backgrounds made any discernible difference. They observed that some groups, rated among Google’s most effective teams, consisted of friends who socialized outside of work.

Google’s investigators are skilled at identifying patterns. Surprisingly, no clear patterns emerged in this case. After scrutinizing more than a hundred groups for over a year, the data did not provide definitive conclusions.

Nonetheless, Project Aristotle investigators persisted in their inquiry and began examining group norms. In doing so, they repeatedly encountered research conducted by psychologists and sociologists that centered on what is referred to as “group norms.”

They concluded that comprehending and influencing group norms were the primary keys to enhancing Google’s teams. But which norms carried the most significance? Is it better to permit individuals to express themselves freely, or should strong leaders curtail lengthy discussions? Is it more effective for people to openly disagree with one another, or should conflicts be downplayed?

What intrigued the researchers most was that teams that excelled in one task generally excelled in every task.

Eventually, they discovered that what sets a “high-performing” team apart from a dysfunctional one is how team members treat each other.

In effective teams, members contribute in a roughly equal proportion, ensuring an equitable distribution of conversational participation. These teams also exhibit “average social sensitivity.” When comparing a “focused team A” with a “fluid team B,” team B typically outperforms team A.

This is part of a concept referred to as “psychological safety.”

Psychological safety

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” – Amy Edmondson

Establishing psychological safety is inherently complex and challenging to implement. Communication and empathy are foundational elements in constructing it, creating an environment where everyone can freely express themselves and ask questions.

Project Aristotle serves as a reminder that when companies attempt to optimize every aspect, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the fact that success is often built upon experiences – such as emotional interactions, intricate conversations, and discussions about who we aspire to be and how our colleagues make us feel.

When and where does psychological safety become exceptionally important?

Typically, better teams make more mistakes, rather than fewer. Why is this the case?

Better teams actively engage in discussions about errors, fostering an environment of comfort and a suitable space for sharing knowledge and learning together.

Recall your school days — how often did you keep a question to yourself?

You found yourself unable to grasp a certain detail, glanced around, and noticed that no one else was posing the same question. You might have felt inadequate, thinking you were the only one who didn’t understand, and so you chose to stay silent and figure it out later.

During our school years, we learned the art of “impression management.” On average, we aimed to present ourselves as smart, helpful, and positive individuals.

This implies that we learned:

  • Not to reveal our lack of knowledge by refraining from asking questions.
  • Not to expose our incompetence by avoiding acknowledgment of weaknesses or errors.
  • Not to display intrusiveness by withholding our ideas.
  • Not to express negativity by refraining from critiquing the status quo.

How does this relate to the workplace?

The reality is that we’re so worried about managing our impressions that we fail to contribute to building a better organization.

Regrettably, we often continue with impression management and avoid raising our hands or speaking up when it is necessary. Sometimes, workplace silence happens, when our voices are needed.

Every time we withhold our contributions, we deprive ourselves and our colleagues of valuable learning opportunities.

How to implement psychological safety?

According to Amy Edmondson, an American scholar in leadership, teamwork, and organizational learning, there are three fundamental principles to implement this:

  • Frame the work as a learning challenge, not just an execution task. Make it explicit that there is substantial uncertainty and extensive interdependence.
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility. Use phrases like: “I may overlook something; I want to hear your perspective.”
  • Model curiosity. Ask a multitude of questions, regardless of whether they seem simple or complex. Just keep asking questions.

What is the right balance between psychological safety and accountability?

Well, it’s not a trade-off; they represent two distinct dimensions.

If you have uncertainty and interdependence at your job, you need to have psychological safety.

No BS.

That’s it. 🚀


Return of the GeekSessions – You won’t believe this one weird trick to make High Performing Teams, Miguel Coquet

Building a psychologically safe workplace, Amy Edmondson | TEDxHGSE

What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build The Perfect Team – THE WORK ISSUE – THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE

How Psychological Safety Affects Team Performance: Mediating Role of Efficacy and Learning Behavior, Sehoon Kim, Heesu Lee and Timothy Paul Connerton